By Victoria McNally
The world loved Carrie Fisher for many, many reasons.
First of all, she was the face of Princess (now General, thank you) Leia in “Star Wars,” which is more than enough to secure her legacy. She was also a brilliant, witty writer who secretly worked as a script doctor and was responsible for some of the best dialogue in your favorite ‘90s movies, like “Sister Act,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “Hook.” And, of course, she was not afraid to speak her mind in interviews — or on Twitter.
But Carrie Fisher is noteworthy for another reason that has nothing to do with her talent; she openly lived with bipolar disorder (specifically bipolar II) and did her part to dispel myths and stigmas surrounding her mental illness. Heck, she even received the Erasing the Stigma Award in 2002 — and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.
She publicly admitted her illness to Diane Sawyer in a groundbreaking interview, back when mental health awareness barely existed.
“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” Fisher told Sawyer during an ABC News Primetime Thursday interview in 2000, saying that her lifelong issues with drug addiction and hospitalization were brought on as a result of her manic depression (now referred to as bipolar disorder).
“I am mentally ill. I can say that,” she added. “I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”
She knew exactly how to explain her illness to young kids who might not understand.
“It’s kind of a virus in the brain,” she told a little boy who asked her about bipolar disorder at Indiana Comic Con in 2015. “It makes you go very fast or very sad. Or both! Those are fun days. So judgement isn’t one of my big good things. But I have a good voice, I can write well. I’m not a good bicycle rider. I’m just like everybody, only louder and faster and sleeps more.”
She took her therapy dog everywhere and didn't apologize for it.
Carrie quietly adopted her beloved Gary in 2012 as an emotional support dog, and the pair became virtually inseparable — he appeared with her onstage during convention Q&As, in televised interviews, and on the red carpet for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
According to the United States Dog Registry, unlike other disability animals, emotional support dogs don’t need to be trained to perform specific tasks; they’re merely meant to provide unconditional love to their owners and can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder and other emotional-based mental illnesses.
She was incredibly kind to other people struggling with mental illness.
Having a mental illness can be a very solitary experience — after all, when the problem is inside your own head, it’s easy to feel trapped in there. But Fisher did her best to reach out and inspire people with similar illnesses.
An example: at a Wizard World Chicago Q&A panel earlier in 2016, a fan approached the mic to ask whether or not Carrie thought being Princess Leia helped her with her disorder. She also had a similar mental illness, she admitted, and even brought her own emotional support dog (dressed as Princess Leia, naturally) to the panel with her. Carrie’s response? To invite the woman up on stage and hug her in front of everybody, joking that they and their dogs should go on a double date to fight mental illness together.
She didn't shy away from talking about the negative aspects of her disorder, either.
Even when people in your life are supportive about your mental illness, it can be tough to open up and be vulnerable about the actual, terrible ways that it can impact your life. But Carrie is no stranger to being upfront about her experiences — after all, she turned her history with drug addiction into “Postcards From The Edge,” a semi-autobiographical novel about her experiences that was eventually made into a movie starring Meryl Streep.
After a 2013 incident where she had a manic episode while on a cruise ship and had to be hospitalized, she wasn’t shy about explaining the details of her breakdown to People Magazine. “I was in a very severe manic state, which bordered on psychosis. Certainly delusional. I wasn’t clear what was going on. I was just trying to survive.”
“The only lesson for me, or anybody, is that you have to get help,” she added. “It’s not a neat illness. It doesn’t go away. “
She even managed to laugh about it sometimes.
In her 2008 one-woman-show-turned-autobiography, “Wishful Drinking,” Fisher made plenty of jokes at her own expense about what it was like to be a famous person with a mental illness. “Oh! This'll impress you,” she wrote. “I'm actually in the Abnormal Psychology textbook. Obviously my family is so proud. Keep in mind though, I'm a PEZ dispenser and I'm in the abnormal Psychology textbook. Who says you can't have it all?”
But she didn't exploit herself for our enjoyment.
“Over the years, writing about [having bipolar disorder] did help me to be able to talk about my illness in the abstract, to make light of it,” Fisher also told People after her episode, explaining that her big, eccentric personality makes it difficult for people to tell when she’s in real trouble. “That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous. But what happened was I lost the serious relationship with it. It is not an entertainment. I’m not going to stop writing about it, but I have to understand it.”
She offered great advice for people struggling with mental illnesss — or for anybody, really.
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway, she told the Herald Tribune in 2013. “What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” Wise words!
Best of all, she gave us proof that you can be diagnosed with a mental illness and still have a can have a happy, successful life.
If Carrie Fisher could live her life, then you can, too. Believe that.